Big Ben turns back clock in Detroit
The Pistons talked center Ben Wallace, 35, out of retiring last offseason
Wallace has played a much bigger role on the court than anyone anticipated
With Wallace at center, Detroit has been one of the NBA's better defensive teams
Ben Wallace had retired. He had made that clear to friends and family who asked him about his future plans. He was all set to make his decision official with the NBA last summer when he began getting phone calls from a few former teammates who weren't having it.
He first heard from Tayshaun Prince, who said it wasn't time for him to retire yet. Then he heard from Richard Hamilton, who told him he could still make a big difference in the league. And then he heard from Pistons president Joe Dumars, who finally asked Wallace to come back "home" and finish his career in Detroit with Prince and Hamilton.
Wallace, who played in Detroit from 2000-2006, always desired to retire a Piston, but he didn't want that to happen through a ceremonial contract. The Pistons, however, weren't interested in merely honoring Wallace -- that could wait for another day. Dumars valued Wallace for his presence, his leadership and his intensity in the locker room. Any on-court production would be a bonus from a 35-year-old center who had missed 36 games during the past two seasons with assorted injuries.
"I just wanted to him to be an example for the younger guys," Dumars said. "I thought he could still play, but I had no idea how much. I did know that, whatever he had left, he was going to give it all being back in Detroit. If there was one team that was going to get his maximum, it was Detroit."
Wallace signed for the veteran's minimum of $1.3 million in August, one month after being traded in the Shaquille O'Neal deal to Phoenix, which subsequently bought out Wallace's $14 million contract for a reported $10 million.
"I came into this season with no expectations," said Wallace, who was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year four times in Detroit. "I didn't expect to play one minute. I was just coming in here to do whatever I could to help this team."
The Pistons have needed Wallace to do a lot, and he has answered by putting up his best numbers since the 2006-07 season. He has started all 14 games and is averaging team highs of 8.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks, along with 3.9 points (he's never been an offensive threat) and 57.1 percent shooting from the field. With Wallace playing 29.9 minutes a game as its defensive anchor, Detroit is holding opponents to 94.6 points (seventh in the NBA) and 44.3 percent shooting (ninth).
"I had no idea that he would do this on a consistent basis," coach Jon Kuester said. "I continually ask him, 'Are you OK? Are you OK?' He always tells me that he's fine. I've known him for a number of years now and I have as much admiration for him as any player in the NBA."
Kuester coached Wallace as an assistant in Detroit when the Pistons won the championship in 2004 and spent the previous season and a half with him in Cleveland. The first-year Detroit coach knew that Wallace could contribute if he remained healthy, though Kuester couldn't have anticipated a 16-rebound performance like the one Wallace had two weeks ago against Philadelphia.
"One of the things that [Cavaliers general manager] Danny Ferry told me at the end of last season was that he was hoping Ben wasn't going to retire, because you could see that he still had some juice left in his body," Kuester said. "He's been phenomenal at times for us this season. I can't begin to tell you how pleased I am that he's a part of this team. He's made my transition as a coach so much smoother."
Wallace returned to the Pistons in part to play with his old teammates again, but he has shared the court with Prince and Hamilton only once this season. Hamilton has been out since Oct. 28 with a sprained right ankle and Prince has been out since Oct. 31 with a ruptured disk in his lower back. The two players who told Wallace that he would have a big season in Detroit if he stayed healthy haven't been able to stay healthy themselves.
"He's been huge for us with me and Rip being out," Prince said. "He's playing great basketball. I know this is unexpected from a lot of people, but when he's healthy, it shows."
Wallace may have been brought in to help mentor and back up Kwame Brown and Chris Wilcox, but he has averaged more minutes, rebounds and blocks than they have combined.
"Even at this stage in his career, he's our best defender," guard Ben Gordon said. "He brings his wisdom of being in the league for so many years and really helps everyone on the court. He just brings energy and intensity every night."
Wallace still appears to take the losses hard, too. After Detroit fell to the Lakers last week in the midst of a current five-game losing streak, Wallace put his head down and sat in front of his locker for about 30 minutes. Many of his younger teammates looked at Wallace on their way out of the visitors' locker room. Wallace was the last one to leave.
"I've been around for a while and I know the ins and outs of the game and the NBA life, and I try to help these guys understand that," Wallace said. "It's a long season, but I want to win. I feel better than I have in years and am able to do a lot of the things I did before. I'm not even thinking about retirement anymore."
NBA Truth & Rumors